Thousands of children could be abused because relatives believe they are witches or possessed by evil spirits in Britain, it has been warned.
Experts fear another child will be murdered if efforts to prevent abuse linked to faith and belief are not urgently stepped up, following the horrific deaths of young victims including Kristy Bamu and Ayesha Ali.
The first ever Government statistics on the issue showed that witchcraft and possession were linked to almost 1,500 potential abuse cases across the UK in a single year but the figure is thought to be an underestimate.
“These beliefs are very real and on occasion people are going to take this to extremes where a child can be murdered,” said Inspector Allen Davis, who leads the Metropolitan Police’s response to the issue.
“There are a number of ways that an adult will try to rid the child of the evil they believe is within them.
“They might try to burn it out, cut it out, strangle it out, drowning can be involved, or starving and beating.”
Several children have been killed in the UK as a result of horrific abuse meted out by guardians who believed they were possessed or witches, including an eight-year-old girl who was tortured and 15-year-old boy who drowned during an exorcism.
Each harrowing case has sparked calls for action, but attention has quickly faded and activists are battling to raise awareness among social services, teachers, police and other authorities.
Dr Lisa Oakley, chair of the National Working Group for Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief, said: “We know these practices are occurring so we want to be acting now so we don’t have another high-profile case.
“You’ve then got a child who is severely damaged or not here anymore, and that’s a high price to pay.
“We’re saying we don’t want to get to a point where there is another high profile case.”
Dr Oakley, who is a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Chester, said the abuse stems from “genuine belief systems” where people believe they are doing the right thing for a child.
Cases have been found in all regions of the UK and across a range of different communities and religions, but a survey of more than 1,300 teachers, social workers, police officers, medics, community workers and religious figures showed that only a third could spot signs of abuse.
Research by the working group indicated that only half of respondents knew how to respond properly and a quarter had training on the issue.
Insp Davis warned that abuse related to witchcraft and demons was being “hidden in plain sight” because it is not properly understood.
“We’re not recognising the signs, we’re not sharing the information, we’re not identifying people who are vulnerable,” he said.